Science fiction and fantasy                                            

A Serpent Uncoiled

by Simon Spurrier


Dan Shaper sees life through a dirt-smeared lens. He's part of the grey world of mundane illegality in modern London, where he works as a private detective for those who won't deal with the police. He's haunted by guilt arising from his past life as a violent underworld enforcer. The only way he can keep the awful memories at bay is through a cocktail of drugs. But every once in a while he's forced to detox to keep himself alive and keep the drugs working.

Dan is preparing to lock himself away to endure a few days of painful withdrawal when he's offered a lucrative job. Mr Glass is a rich old man who has been threatened, and Shaper is asked to protect him. Glass seems like a kindly, daft old geezer with a bad case of amnesia and delusions. But to Dan Shaper he positively glows with goodness. When Glass claims to be 3000 years old Dan is understandably sceptical, but he can't help feeling that there's something special about the old man.

However there's a serial killer on the loose, leaving a trail of mutilated bodies and odd clues. And then a man believed dead for years is implicated in the killings. This brings Dan back into contact with the criminal gang he wants nothing more to do with, people who were heavily involved in the tragedy of his past. The plot takes in a brutal underworld of drug pushers, hired thugs, prostitutes and other criminals. It contrasts sharply with Mr Glass's circle of new-age hippies peddling eastern mysticism to the gullible. Dan is intrigued by a new-age seer close to Glass called Mary Devon, but he's repulsed by her deceitfulness.

Shaper has visions of sin and salvation made real, like auras swirling around people or sights of flesh corrupting and bubbling with maggots and rot due to guilt. It's as though he can see people's inner selves. But are they mere hallucinations caused by his dependency? The story teeters on the edge of the supernatural, teasing readers with hints of genuine magic wrapped in all the layers of messianic claptrap. It's very cleverly put together, shifting our expectations one way and another and not resolving the question of whether there's something supernatural at work until the end. The central murder mystery is very twisty as well, culminating in a tense ending as Dan races to find the real killer before he or she can strike again.

A Serpent Uncoiled is a little bit noir, and it paints a vivid picture of London as only Dan Shaper would see it. This description from chapter 16 is characteristic of the style:

"The whole street seemed to cower below the roaring pass of lorries, and sulked among flows of gridlocked litter.

The reaches of West London had always felt alien to Shaper, far from the bedrock of traditional scallywaggery out east. It was heartening nonetheless to note that the city had snotted out a few last-ditch nuggets of urban sleaze to mark its boundary."

This grim and gritty atmosphere is tied up with the sharp, cynical prose of Shaper's internal monologue, and bundled into the boot with a host of entertaining secondary characters. Vince is a hired thug who helps Shaper out, but he's also allowed depth and humour in between bouts of brutality. The novel is horrific in places, however. But it's also very well written so that this extreme violence doesn't seem superfluous, and it makes sense.

What I liked most about this novel wasn't the suspense or the mystery, excellent though they are, but Dan Shaper's way of seeing things. His London is black and desperate, shot through with unexpected flashes of brilliant colour which are more likely to turn out to be fresh blood or bad acid than anything redemptive. His dry humour and unique voice make Shaper's London dark and fascinating.

18th July 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

  Male Protagonist  
  Not For The Squeamish  

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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson